by Margaret Bhatty

Readers will recall the children's essays carried in the March issue of the INDIAN SKEPTIC. These were entries in a competition for the children of the staff of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology on Annual Day, and organised by Dr. P.M.Bhargava, Director at the time.

Rationalists undoubtedly discerned that the lad who questioned the existence of God in his essay has an "uncoventional" upbringing. I know nothing of Master G.Akhil Kumar's background, but I do know that in the heavy religiosity that pervades conventional Indian society, young people are not expected to think for themselves on such significant matters.

Femina magazine once ran a series of articles on the importance of religion in rearing children to the best of Indian tradition and culture. The religion here being Hinduism. I happened to pick up one issue and immediately wrote an article countering the argument that morality can only be learnt from religious indoctrination. I had reared two children without frightening them with guilt, sin and hell fire in order to be "good" and they have grown into worthwhile adults. The article was not published.

Assuming that education is a process of personality building, we must regard it as a continuing process. It cannot be segmented by a formula like 10+2+3 as cut-off points. But, regrettably, our system has little to do with shaping personality and creating an awareness in the young. It is a grade-based system which turns out grade-based individuals. Motivation springs not from a love of knowledge but for achieving high marks by fair means or foul.

Our education ceased long ago to have educational content. The possession of a high school certificate or a college degree has nothing to do with academic excellence. These scraps of paper are an assurance of identity in social terms. They are needed for opening doors to jobs, for finding husbands, for securing dowries. The enormous pressure such a system places on the minds of our young is demonstrated in the number of juvenile suicides when high school results are published. A child's self-image is severely damaged when parents push them to the limit. I have had pupils say to me in despair "Miss, I'm no good - I can't pass."

Self-actuating, intellectually aware students are seekers not sponges. With seekers knowledge and awareness are both aims and ends. "what is needed is not only technical skill in one's profession," wrote Bertrand Russell, "but such knowledge as inspires a conception of the ends of human life as a whole, touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctly human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs."

With the recent change in government at the Centre, hopes have been expressed by intellectuals that a new direction be given to education. An orientation which will cultivate in the young the curiosity to question and the courage to reject. It is a vain hope.

Already, orthodoxy is once more tunnelling the system as it did in the days of the Janatha Government. History texts are being scrutinised to give them a Hindu bias. Universities are offering courses in ancient and arcane systems of medicine and pseudo-science based on folklore and superstition. Others conduct experiments in parapsychology to prove that spirit possession, rebirth and yogic feats are scientific. Political interference in syllabuses, and the problem of satisfying all religious groups has often led to noisy processions coming out demanding that a single offensive sentence be deleted from a textbook. Standardisation in such a context is not a scientific frame to develop potential originality, but a system warped by religious, social and political constraints.

Those intellectuals who want to see our young question and even reject must first find the politician, educationist or policy-maker with the courage to question and reject. In History classes there must be a better balance of the Hindu-Muslim factor in medieval India. In Social Studies, along with the accounts of our major religions and its saints, there must also be a scrutiny of all god-ideas as presented by them, their validity, their rationality. There must be a complete account, from whatever texts we have left, of Indian atheism and the fact that there has always been dissent in our society. There have been courageous people who have questioned and rejected religious belief, priestly dominance, the subjection of women, and the caste system. There have been ancient thinkers whose positivism and love of life and happiness rejected morbid self-torture and negation which promised reward in some nebulous hereafter. There were present in ancient India people who knew and sought to understand the laws of nature.

Education in such a context becomes a dynamic process because students are put in touch with novel ideas and conditions. They will interact with these alternate ideas - 'unconventional' ideas - and learn to develop individual proficiency in judging, analysing, evaluating and criticising these ideas before arriving at their own individual conclusions. Curiosity when thus sharpened from a pupil's formative years will remain with them throughout. Self-realisation will follow when they are allowed to determine their own terms of reference as to what they think and feel as adults. A free and inquiring mind is an open mind. It is also reasonable mind. When our country flounders in a welter of rabid fanaticisms, our children's capacity for reasonableness could well decide the very survival of our society.

The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

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Last update: 15 July 1998